Over the last fortnight, Kenyans had multiple opportunities to get an up-close-and-personal look at the remarkable vibrancy and beauty of contemporary art.
There are many places to see artists at work. Increasingly, one has to find them in their home studios. But where clusters of artists can be found working are in places like Kuona Trust, the GoDown Art Centre, Brush tu Art Studio and Maasai Mbili.
But last weekend and the weekend before, there were two group exhibitions that offered the clearest evidence of how rich and varied the local art scene has become.
First came the Kenya Museum Society’s Affordable Art Show which mainly showcased the works of younger up-and-coming artists with a few whose names are better known.
A few more artists featured at the KMS show also shared their works this past weekend at the Friends of the Arts (FOTA) exhibition at the International School of Kenya (ISK).
There are a lot of similarities between the two shows. Both are annual events and come shortly before the holiday season kicks off.
So artists have high hopes their works will sell to holiday shoppers as well as to those who simply love Kenyan art. Both shows are run by expatriate volunteers. Both sets of volunteers take a relatively small percentage of the art sales to donate to what they see as worthy causes.
For instance, KMS assists the National Museums of Kenya. This year, they’ll be helping build a national taxidermy lab inside the museum.
Meanwhile, FOTA hadn’t quite decided where or to whom they are going to donate their funds this year since the final tally of sales hadn’t been completed by the time I attended the exhibition.
But in the past, explained FOTA volunteer (and father of two ISK students) Anacleto Zielinski-Gutierrez, the Friends had contributed to local groups ranging from the Nairobi Youth Orchestra, Shangilia Children’s Home and Maasai Mbili (artists in Kibera) to the Dandora Hip Hop City, Art of Music Foundation and Artists for Development which funds four separate art classes in Kibera including the teachers’ salaries and art materials.
What was fascinating about the two exhibitions is that both highlighted a wide range of local talents, with KMS representing more newcomers to the art scene and FOTA showing off some of Kenya’s more established artists such as Cyrus Kabiru, Gor Soudan, Dennis Muraguri, Patrick Mukabi and Alex Wainaina.
There were overlaps of course, with a number of artists featured in both shows, such Patrick Kinuthia, Adrian Nduma, Gloria Muthoka, Tom Mboya and the Yegonizer. But more of the better-known artists chose to primarily pay attention to FOTA.
In part this could be because the Friends don’t insist on the “affordable” pricing of their art (meaning Sh99,000 and less).
“Some of their art is ‘affordable’, some is on the artists’ terms of preference,” said Anacleto.
He noted that FOTA did recommend that prices be kept within a reasonable range if artists really wanted to sell their work. But there was no pressure, unlike KMS where some artists claim the organisers can be quite emphatic about how much their artworks should sell for.
The one area where FOTA is explicit is at their 40 (cms) by 40 (cms) wall. Artists are encouraged to bring one stretched canvas that size to place on the 40 x 40 wall. On average those paintings sell for between Sh10,000 and 20,000.
However, Anacleto said some artists insist their work sells for quite a bit more.
In all, FOTA made about Sh2.5million during their four-day sale. In all 90 artists submitted artworks, out of which 250 went on show and around 70 of them sold, said this year’s FOTO show coordinator Mary Lou Dewit.
Both shows had excellent opening night turnouts.
But the other big difference between the FOTA and KMS shows is that while both have catalogues, KMS’s focuses on the artworks and prices of artists while FOTA’s gives the artists’ contacts including their phone numbers and e-mails, thus enabling the public to communicate directly with the creatives.