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How Kenyan art has evolved from Independence

The Harambee63 Gumboots, 63 pairs, with
The Harambee63 Gumboots, 63 pairs, with Graffiti faces of revolutionaries. Courtesy  

The concept of [email protected] inspired not just politicians but a number of artists, musicians and especially thespians to produce creative projects that celebrate 50 years of our country’s independence. Both Phoenix Players and Kenyatta University Theatre Arts Department devised original musical productions to celebrate the concept.

Wambui Kamiru developed a complete art installation that she called Harambee63 and which first came to light at Kuona Trust after which she took it on tour to South Africa. But Wambui together with the Nairobi-based Belgian artist Xavier Verhoest also wondered how individual Kenyans felt about ‘[email protected]’.

What did it mean to be a Kenyan at this moment in time?

The issue of a Kenyan identity became a burning concern for both of them. They decided to approach it from several angles—intellectually, artistically and academically. “Who I Am/Who We Are” became the title of a multi-pronged interactive project that began more than five months ago.

Having two dimensions, one a ‘Body Mapping’ exercise that would result in artistic self-portraits meant to illustrate an individual’s visual sense of their identity as a Kenyan, and the other set in a so-called ‘Silent Room’ where individuals, in the quiet of an insulated self-contained room, told their story - prompted by a disembodied voice asking constructive questions about how they perceive themselves.

Thus far, Xavier and Wambui have conducted the ‘Who I am/Who we are’ project at three different sites around Nairobi in the last year. The first was at the Kenya Cultural Centre which attracted around 200 individuals, especially local artists, to walk into the Silent Room and share their personal views.

Then they went to Mukuru ‘slum’ where the public was slightly more sceptical about stepping into a canvas and steel structure but in the course of a week, another 200 people warmed up to the idea of sharing their personal thoughts about being a Kenyan today.

Finally, this past month, Xavier and Wambui went to Diamond Plaza in Parklands and set up their project, assisted by Amin Eichie and David Mwaniki, the anonymous voice talking to those willing participants who agreed to sit alone in the sound-proof silent room and share their stories.

And just like Mukuru, the people of Parklands were initially sceptical but got increasingly curious about the tent-like steel hut located in the middle of a parking lot covered in colourful ‘Body Maps’. By the time the weekend was up, the intrigued public spent the three-day event standing in line to tell their stories.

Both Xavier and Wambui have already begun compiling Kenyans’ multi-faceted stories. Wambui has specifically taken on the task of studying the stories to see if there is a common thread that might answer the query of Who we are, Who I, a Kenyan, am—be ‘I’ African, Asian, Arab or Mzungu.

The two hope to share their insights before [email protected] has come and gone.

Humble beginnings

Meanwhile, the Banana Hill Art Gallery is a little less than half the country’s age. Shine, Rahab, Njoki and Njeri Tani are celebrating the 22nd anniversary of the Gallery which actually began as BHA Studio in 1992, before it matured into a gallery in 2005.

Starting humble with aspiring artists coming from all around Banana Hill to work and learn from Shine in his and Rahab’s home.

The Tanis, both self-taught artists, didn’t shut their door to anyone who wanted to learn how to paint, draw and market their work. Their first buyer was the late Ruth Schaffner of Gallery Watatu who had been a mentor to Shine – who, in turn, began mentoring his family and friends in the creative process.

Life has changed a great deal for the Studio/Gallery since then, with Shine, Rahab, Martin Kamuyu and Njeri (who was born the same year as the Studio) being the only four who were there from the outset. Both their artistic styles and the gallery have grown and matured tremendously over those 22 years.

52 paintings

To celebrate their anniversary, Shine with his second daughter Njoki selected 52 of their favourite paintings to put on display throughout the month of June.

Including 24 artists in their Anniversary Show, the Tanis selected mainly Kenyan artists to exhibit, namely Andrew Kamondia, Martin Kamuyu, Patrick Kinuthia, Shade Kamau, Sebastian Kiarie, Leornad Kirago, Stephen Kibunja, Edward Muratha and Charles Warui as well as Rahab and Shine.

They also featured Ugandans like Jjuuko Hoods, Ssali Yusef, Amos Ssentogo, Hussan Mukiibi, Ro Wang and Ismael Kateregga; Tanzanian Haji Chilonga and Salum Kambi; one Sudanese Magdi Adam and one South African Felix Buro.

“We selected artists whose work we have seen develop and evolve over time,” said Shine. The artwork in the Anniversary Exhibition ranges from Sh25,000 to Sh250,000.

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