Visual Voices: the Work of over 50 Contemporary Artists in Kenya’ is a tome that may soon be seen as canonical, a ‘must-have’ for every university and public library having even a slight interest in Africa, leave alone contemporary Kenyan art.
Susan Wakhungu-Githuku’s voluminous 650-page text with its 400 colour images, including Anthony Okello’s stunning ‘Masquerade’ mask on the cover, documents Kenya’s contemporary art scene admirably.
One will only need to open Visual Voices to any one of the 57 artists documented both photographically and biographically in the book to see that the content is indeed impressive and unprecedented.
The photography alone is for the most part sharp, expressive and illustrative of the quality of work that each of the selected artists has produced over the years. Some of it has been shot by Bobby Pall, the professional who Susan has worked closely with since she started Footprints Press back in 2010.
The other outstanding photographers who’ve contributed to the images in the book are James Muriuki and Bedad Mwangi. However, when it comes down to giving credit where it’s ultimately due, one has to hand it to Susan since it was her decision to devote so much space in the book to allowing the art to speak for itself.
In fact, what better way to destroy forever the myth that there’s ‘nothing’ happening artistically in Kenya or East Africa than to provide concrete and colourful evidence of the vibrancy of the current Kenyan art scene. What better way to debunk the lie that the only art forms in the country are curios often called souvenir or airport art.
Surprisingly, there are still some Africanists who continue to perpetuate that lie. They still claim the only contemporary African art of merit is to be found in West and Southern Africa.
And even now, when the global media is highlighting the surge of intense interest in Pan-African art, they are still largely ignoring East Africa.
But now that ‘Visual Voices’ has been published, the reality of the Kenyan art scene can no longer. Of course, there are issues about the book that a few art critics have raised. The main ones relate to Susan’s selection process and the criteria she used to pick the 57 artists that she did. And why did she leave out others who one could have assumed would be there in the book but are not?
Criteria is always a sticky subject and Susan in her acknowledgements says she worked closely with a ‘selection team’ who helped her choose. But she also admits it was she who made the final pick.
For the most part the book is broadly reflective of what’s happening right now in the mainstream of Kenya’s thriving art scene. Nonetheless, there are many more up-and-coming local artists who didn’t get into the book. But their time is coming and a tome like Visual Voices is giving young Kenyan artists hope that they too will one day gain the kind of qualitative recognition that Susan has given these 57, most of whom are Nairobi-based and fairly well-established.
There are several outstanding local artists who are absent, but most of them made a personal choice not to be in the book. There are others whose inclusion I could question. One is an artist who died more than 16 years ago and who was never actively engaged in the contemporary Kenyan art scene.
I’m not adverse to the book including deceased artists like Samwel Wanjau and Expedito Mwebe, both of whom made important contributions to our current art world. Wanjau is considered one of Kenya’s greatest sculptors and the father to two other outstanding artists who are both in Visual Voices, namely Anthony and Jackson Wanjau. And Expedito left his sculptural mark in cathedrals, conference centres, hotels and private homes all over the country.
But if the book had been even more inclusive of deceased Kenyan artists, I would have recommended two more notable painters be there. Both Omosh Kindeh (aka Eric Omondi) and Ashif (George) Malamba passed on a couple of years back, and both were central figures in Kenyans’ contemporary art world. Not so Tonio Trzebinski who passed on in 2001 and was more closely identified with the ‘white mischief’ side of Kenya than the contemporary Kenyan art world.
But leaving aside the issue of what Visual Voices didn’t do, there is so much that it’s done to confirm not just the reality of contemporary Kenyan art but also its longevity. And this was done by ensuring that artists who were practicing as far back as the 1950’s and 1960’s are including in the book. That means that Elimo Njau, Yony Waite, Samwel Wanjau, Ancent Soi and Jak Katarikawe are all featured in the book. Indeed, all six are treated just as tastefully as the rest. That’s to say they all have full-page portrait photos followed by a full-page of biographical text after which no less than six separate pages of either paintings, drawings, sculptures or photographs reflect the artist’s best work. Two installation artists, Syomia Kyambi and Wambui Kamiru-Collymore, were given more pages than the rest, apparently because it’s not as easy to capture the essence of installation art in a single snap.
Equally, what further reveals the rich diversity of the current art scene is the variety of media that the artists employ as evidenced by the photographs of their artwork. There’s plenty of acrylic and oil paints applied on everything from well-primed canvas, linen and plywood to Lubugo bark cloth, galvanized metal sheets and glass. The sculptures also are created in multi-media as artists have worked with everything from wood, scrap metal and stoneware to bronze, steel, resin and fibre glass.
Finally, the issue of gender balance is one that the publisher has clearly sought to address. She didn’t quite make it as there are only fifteen women artists out of 57 represented in Visual Voices. Nonetheless, these fifteen are all committed ‘creatives’ who have consistently proved they can hold their own well in what is still a predominantly male-dominated visual art world. All fifteen are trailblazers who are already serving as role models to other young women and girls who’d like to take that leap of faith and become creative artists themselves.
In this regard, I have to commend Susan Wakhungu-Githuku for daring to publish such a beautiful book. It’s a treasure trove that is bound to transform lives of untold African artists who’ll be inspired by what they see and hear from these articulate visual voices.