Enterprising painters give Nairobi its first open fine arts market
Posted Sunday, April 22 2012 at 16:34
Out in Muchatha, one of Nairobi’s peri-urban villages situated a few kilometres from the United Nations headquarters, a group of artists are working on the front garden of an old hand in the game, Wakanyote Njuguna, to create one of the most inventive experiments in artistic expression in Kenya.
Since March last year, the team composed of fine artists, painters, and sculptors has been at Wakanyote’s almost every day of the week — creating a large variety of African art and artifacts that are exhibited at a monthly show where visitors not only sample the aesthetics but can also buy and carry it home.
“We are creating and assembling what should become one of Kenya’s prime fine art markets, one day at a time,” says Elkana Ong’esa, who recently opened the African Institute for Culture and Development to train local sculptors and carvers in the finer techniques of creating works that are not only claiming world class status but also selling for millions of shillings in the global art markets.
Together with the dozens of quasi professionals who exercise their skills in Wakanyote’s garden, Ongesa belongs to the group of artists that has rejected the notion that commercialising art kills aesthetics.
“Those who tell us not to think about making money from our art are doing us a disservice,” he says vigorously opposing the myth that has only defined African art in terms of its functionality — either as utilitarian artifacts such as ceramic pots, calabash milk containers, and beautiful grass mats used for bedding, or as religious or ceremonial items used at special occasions such as circumcision.
Today, one could say that Africans still create art that is functional but not purely as “art for art’s sake”.
The difference is only that the functionality has to do with surviving in a 21st century world where millions of Africans are self-employed in the informal economy, there being too few jobs to go round in the formal sector.
In Kenya, art has in the past few years gradually taken its position as an important element of the “Creative Economy”, with immense and often untapped potential for generating growth and creating jobs.
Recent studies by the United Nations agencies have found that for a culturally diverse country like Kenya, creative art is one segment of the economy with a limitless growth potential in activities such as music, architecture, handicrafts, fine art, fashion and interior design, publishing and graphic design.
This is the reality that has escaped the minds of Kenya’s policy makers even as they grapple with the tough task of keeping jobs growth steady and in line with population trends.
A misunderstanding of its role in a modern economy is also the reason art was removed from Kenya’s list of examinable subjects in the national schools syllabus at the turn of the millennium after former President Moi roped it into the formal learning system in 1985.
Though now on the periphery, the mainstreaming of art in the school system in the 1980s helped nurture and sharpen the skills of countless Kenyan artists who identify themselves as self-taught painters and sculptors, despite having taken art classes throughout their primary and,or, secondary education.
The Kibaki government deleted art from the syllabus upon coming to power in 2003, dismissing it as unnecessary and a waste of time.
That action has not prevented a few Kenyan artists from enjoying a good living off their art.
The list of successful artists includes Richard Kimathi, Peterson Kamwathi, Ehoodi Kichapi, Beatrice Njoroge, and Patrick Mukabi, among others.