Kenyan art enjoying international acclaim

Anne Mwiti with Portrait of a Lady. PHOTO |
Anne Mwiti with Portrait of a Lady. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU 

The increasing globalisation of the Kenyan visual art scene is irrefutable - not only because artists like Magdalene Odundo and Wangeci Mutu are currently enjoying celebrity status in European and American art circles; (one example being Wangeci’s recent one-woman tour across the States of her collage art).

It’s also not simply because the Kenyatta University Fine Art lecturer Anne Mwiti recently won the 2014 World Citizen Artist Competition, an award she received in London where her multimedia painting was the only one out of the top 10 winners exhibited at the Belgravia Gallery that came from Africa. (The other nine artists were from Asia, Europe and America.)

It’s also not just because the art of Kenyan artist Peterson Kamwathi is now part of the permanent collection at the British Museum in the UK.

It isn’t even because the Kenyan children’s art that won the MASK 014 art competition went straight to be exhibited at the Saatchi Gallery also in London.

It’s all that and more. For instance, a range of Kenyan artists are currently exhibiting at the Cape Town Art Fair alongside artists from all over the African region.


Meanwhile, the C-Stunner sculptures of Cyrus Kabiru Ng’ang’a are being featured in the Smac Gallery in Johannesburg. And before that, he’d been exhibiting his C-Stunners everywhere from Los Angeles and New York to Milan and London.

It is also because Kenya has become a venue where not only Kenyan artists’ works are currently on display everywhere from galleries and restaurants to leading local universities, but artists from elsewhere have come here for both inspiration and the appreciation they find among local art lovers.

The best illustration of artists from elsewhere coming to Kenya for inspiration, sun and artistic support is the Lamu Painters Festival which opened early this week and will go on for another fortnight.

Plein air painters

It’s the third bi-annual festival which has been organised by the German philanthropist Herbert Menzer. The retired Hamburg restaurateur has been inviting artists from Europe (mainly ‘plein air’ painters from Holland and Germany) since 2011 to paint in Shela village and other parts of Lamu Island.

Herbert has also invited Kenyan artists to work side-by-side with the Europeans. Among them have been Patrick Mukabi, Kyalo Justus, Patrick Kinuthia, Fitsum and El Tayeb Mohammed.

This year, Herbert invited two Kenyans to come paint, namely Nadia Shiro and Zihan Hassan. Probably the main reason he didn’t feel compelled to invite more Kenyans is because he had just hosted five of them this past November together with one German sculptor Joachim Sauter during a three-week artists residency at Shela.

The amazing artworks produced by the six are currently on display at OneOff Gallery in a group show oddly entitled The Still Clocks of Lamu.

Herbert also helped transport all the art produced by Peter Elungat, Chelenge van Rampelburg, Peter Ngugi, Timothy Brooke and Sophie Walboeffe from Shela to Nairobi. He even delivered the first two monumental African Mahogany sculptures by Joachim to One Off for last weekend’s opening.

Theirs is an inspired collection of oil and water colour paintings as well as sculptures, all of which were created during their three-week residency. Finishing touches on the works were actually made after the residency. Nonetheless, the productivity of the artists is a revelation in itself, especially as the quality of their art is first class.


But these are not the only global features of the current Kenyan art scene. At Banana Hill Art Gallery, two outstanding Congolese artists’ works are up until this weekend, those of Bezalel Ngabo and Kamile Nkanza.

At Talisman Restaurant, abstract art by the Eritrean artist Rahel Bhalibi is up on the walls. And next week, a set of Japanese Dolls will go on display at the National Museum.

But Kenyan artists are also showing their stuff currently. For instance, at Kuona Trust, Jackie Karuti’s one-woman show entitled Labyrinth is a continuation of an exhibition she had a year ago at the Bag Factory in Johannesburg where she had a residency for several months.

Also at Kuona Trust, artists from Maasai Mbili just presented their third ‘Chokora’ fashion collection which they’ll exhibit later this month at Goethe Institute.

Finally, at the Red Hill Gallery, Ink and Smoke on Paper is a show curated by the German Hellmuth Musch-Rossler, which just opened this past weekend featuring the art of two Kenyans, Evans Kangethe and William Wambugu.

For all of these reasons, I believe Kenya is fast becoming not just an economic and IT hub of the region, but an artistic capital as well.