The Gems of Contemporary Kenyan Artists exhibition, which ran until this week at Alliance Française Nairobi, could very well be the most impressive collection of all-Kenyan art since, in the last year alone, there have been several extraordinary art exhibitions in Nairobi, but none that focused on such a wide range of exclusively Kenyan artists and their work as this one did.
For instance, last November an amazing East African Art Auction was curated by Circle Art Agency (which is mounting its second EA Art Auction November 3rd at the Villa Rosa Kempinski Hotel). The same month, a stunning and eclectic Labyrinths exhibition was held at the residence of the Belgian Ambassador. But both of these shows were a mix of Kenyan art plus a wealth of works by other East African artists—Ugandans, Ethiopians and Sudanese unlike the GEMS expo.
Embracing no less than 65 Kenyan artists’ works, the art, which filled two whole floors plus stairways of Alliance Française, included paintings made with oils, acrylics and mixed media, photographs on canvas and sculptures crafted out of wood, scrap metal, granite and Kisii stone.
Representing some of the country’s most seasoned and well reputed artists, the one criterion they all share was that they are included in the new book launched the same night as the exhibition opened titled Creating Contemporary African Art: Art Networks in Urban Kenya.
The book explores 20th century Kenyan art although its main focus is on the 50 years between 1960 and 2010. It also traces Kenyan art back thousands of years to the rock art that’s been found in Nyanza Province in Western Kenya and photographed by one of the founders of the Trust for African Rock Art (TARA), professional photographer David Coulson.
The exhibition itself features a whole range of artists, from veterans like Ancient Soi, Jak Katarikawe, Yony Waite and Kamal Shah to artists from several leading ‘art networks’ such as Banana Hill Art Gallery (Shine and Rahab Tani, Sebastian Kiarie, Patrick Kinuthia, Martin Kamuyu, Shade Kamau and Peter Kibunja), One Off Gallery (Peter Elungat, Anthony Okello, Beatrice Wanjiku, John Kamicha, Richard Kimathi and Allan Githuka), Kuona Trust (Gakunju Kaigwa, Dennis Muraguri, Maryann Muthoni, Omosh Kindeh, Kepha Mosoti, Maggie Otieno, Anthony Wanjau, David Mwaniki, Yassir Ali, Tabitha Wa Thuku and William Wambugu), The GoDown Art Centre (Michael Soi, Patrick Mukabi, Mary Ogembo and Irene Wanjiru), Maasai Mbili (Gomba Otieno, Ashif Malamba, Kevo Irungu, O.K. Rabala, Solo 7 and Mbuthia Maina who’s also worked closely with Samuel Njuguna), the Railway Museum Art Gallery (Remy Musindi and Elkana Ong’esa) and Ngecha artists King Dodge Kingoroti, Anne Turugah and George Ngaruiya as well as Mary Collis of RaMoMa Trust, Nani Croze of Kitengela Glass and Gallery Watatu founder-mother Yony Waite, among others.
All of these artists are represented in Creating Contemporary African Art: Art Networks in Urban Kenya. But the book actually covers many more than these 65 artists.
A number of artists who were meant to be at the exhibition couldn’t make it for various reasons. For instance, Peterson Kamwathi didn’t have any framed works available (as is required by Alliance Française) since all of his art is on its way to Bern, Switzerland, where he will have a major exhibition in the coming weeks.
Jimnah Kimani (whose art is all over Nairobi in the Java Coffee Houses) stays way out in Kitengela, as does Justus Kyalo, which meant they both had logistical problems getting their artwork to town.
And Patricia Njeri, who also lives outside Nairobi near Limuru, was preparing for her own one-woman exhibition, which opened in late September at Banana Hill Art Gallery.
But if the exhibition fell short of serving as a full reflection of contemporary Kenyan art, it’s because the art scene in the country is changing so fast that many of the rising stars on the scene either started their careers after 2010, which is the cut-off date of the book, or they were simply unknown to the writer-researcher of Creating Contemporary African Art at the time of her research.
Among those ‘rising stars’ are artists like Mike Kyalo, Boniface Maina and Michael Musyoka (the latter two are currently exhibiting at Village Market with Douglas Musyoki), as well as MaryAnn Muthoni, Florence Wangui, Rosemary Ohoro and Jackie Karuti.
So the exhibition can’t be said to reflect all the amazing creative energies at work in the visual arts in Kenya today, but it’s a fair beginning for getting a broad overview of the burgeoning local art scene that is among the most vibrant art worlds in Africa today.