Art fair opens under the shadow of Kuona Trust scandal

Artists Paul Njihia (L) and Fred Abuya drew caricatures of visitors at Kuona Reloaded opening. PHOTO | MARGERETTA WA GACHERU
Artists Paul Njihia (L) and Fred Abuya drew caricatures of visitors at Kuona Reloaded opening. PHOTO | MARGERETTA WA GACHERU 

Even though Kuona Trust’s Board of Trustees shut down the offices last September so that one of its donors could conduct a special audit of the accounts, all the studio artists have vowed to do everything in their power to keep the art centre alive and strong.

That power was dramatically manifest this past weekend when the artists organised a multifaceted event entitled ‘Kuona Reloaded’.

Part art fair, fund-raiser and live music concert, what was ‘reloaded’ at the Kilimani-based art centre was clearly the artists’ spirit, recharged after being demoralised by all the rumours circulating that “Kuona was dead.”

“Just because the offices are closed doesn’t mean Kuona is dead,” said Meshak Oiro, one of the 35 artists based at the Trust.

Ironically, the current crisis the centre is facing (given that multi-million shillings are missing and some donor-funded projects stalled since the cash they require is ‘gone’) has galvanised the artists to work in solidarity to give the centre all they’ve got.


Working collectively, they created a committee made up of five (namely Gakunju Kaigwa, the chairman, Thom Ogonga, Dennis Muraguri, Alex Njoroge and Kevin Oduor). After that, the immediate issue was raising funds to meet the minimum requirements to keep the Trust afloat.

The most conspicuous fundraiser opened last Saturday morning after almost all the artists donated one or two works for sale (at a ridiculously low price).

Reggae tunes

Starting from 10am, friends of the Trust floated into the gallery and within the first hour, artworks by everyone from Dennis, Patti Endo, David Thuku and Onyis Martin to John Siver, Jessica Atieno, Longinos Nagila and Rosemary Ahoro had red ‘sold’ stickers under them.

By the end of that first day, practically everything on the gallery walls was sold. There are still some paintings and sculptures on sale there through this weekend.

Plus a myriad more are available in Kuona’s shop together with jewellery, gift cards, hand-painted bags and t-shirts.

Another sign of artists solidary is that all their studios are open and the public encouraged to come, see and buy art at prices set by each creative; then, a percentage of each sale goes towards saving one of Kenya’s leading art centres.

“We’ve already covered this month’s rent,” said Wangari Murugu, one of the four trustees.

The other three are chairman Chris Ngovi, Rahab Nderu and Maggie Otieno who on Saturday presided over a raffle of artworks by both Kuona artists and alumni like Michael Soi who contributed one of his popular hand-painted bags to the cause.

The committee also opened their spacious grounds for artisanal vendors like Cindimini Jewellers to rent space and sell their hand-made crafts and clothes. A local reggae band also performed throughout the afternoon and into the night.

Tunedom Reggae was so good a band that many people couldn’t resist jumping up on the grass and getting their reggae moves in gear. By now the special audit has been completed. Commissioned by the Swedish NGO, Forum Syd, its results will soon be shared with the artists and other interested parties involved in financially supporting the Trust.

Another art fair

That includes Kenya’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs which actually commissioned sculptor Kevin Oduor (the artist responsible for creating the Dedan Kimathi statue) to create a life-sized sculpture of the late Nobel laureate Professor Wangari Maathai.

Kevin has yet to complete the work since he never received the funds required to buy all the art materials.

The ministry is concerned because they already paid Sh1 million directly to Kuona Trust by cheque, yet Kevin didn’t receive a spec of that money until the ministry queried Kuona’s former director Sylvia Gachia as to why funds hadn’t been released to the artist.

After that, Kevin received a fraction of the funds he needed, but then, the questions started to fly and he hasn’t seen his money nor Sylvia since the offices were shut.

Meanwhile, the Kenya Art Fair opens today through this weekend at Sarit Centre.

Organised by Kuona under the direction of Maggie, the fair is one of the most anticipated art shows of the year.