Kenyan artists now able to earn big bucks


Lady in the Garden by Peter Elungat.


  • Gems of Contemporary Kenyan Art exhibition opens at Alliance Francaise on Tuesday, September 16, coincidentally with the book launch of Creating Contemporary African Art: Art Networksin Urban Kenya, from 6:30pm
  • Storymoja Festival opens at Nairobi National Museum on Wednesday, September 17 featuring visual artists from Kuona Trust and Pan African writers, including Nobel Prize winning author Wole Soyinka.
  • Jak Katarikawe’s Early Art is up at the Nairobi Gallery through to the end of 2014.
  • Andrew Otieno’s artworks are on exhibition at the Railway Museum Art Gallery until September 19.
  • Ugandan artist Ssali Yusuf’s latest paintings are on display at Banana Hill Art Gallery until end of September 20.
  • Peter Elungat and Olivia Pentergast’s paintings are on exhibit at OneOff Gallery in Rosslyn.

As the holiday season nears, lots of arts and crafts events are coming up.

One of the biggest pre-Christmas/Hanukkah events is slated for early November when Circle Arts Agency holds its second East African Art Auction at the Kempinski Hotel. A year ago, Circle Arts organised a similar event that saw Kenyan artists earning hundreds of thousands of shillings for their paintings and sculptures.
And a few, like Sane Wadu and the late Samwel Wanjau had art lovers making million-shilling bids for their art work thus confirming that parents no longer need to discourage their children from pursuing careers in the arts.
Indeed, quite a few artists now live comfortably, as well as full time painters, sculptors, photographers and even installation artists whose innovative designs are earning them recognition at major events like Circle’s Art Auction and the upcoming KSPCA Art Auction.
They are also increasingly being appreciated overseas as well, where the works of painters like Anthony Okelo are currently being exhibited in London at the prestigious Gallery of African Art. Meanwhile, Cyrus Ng’ang’a is signed up to showcase his C-Stunner “eye wear” in South Africa at the Smak Gallery in Cape Town.
Kenyan artists are clearly on the move and are increasingly being seen as having immense investment potential, both among buyers from abroad (be they Chinese, British, French or Japanese) as well as Kenyans who understand there is both economic and aesthetic value in fellow Kenyans’ works of art.

For instance, one Kenyan art collector (who asked for anonymity) bought up the entire collection of paintings and photographs by the late Kenyatta University lecturer Louis Mwaniki.

And then there is a British art lover who bought up a whole series of amazing paintings that were inspired by Luo traditions. The artist says he would have loved to see the series remain in Kenya, but he also had to eat, pay school fees and complete construction of his house.
One Kenyan artist who has a large following among both local and international art lovers is Peter Elungat who currently has an exhibition at One Off Gallery. A self-taught painter whose only artistic instruction was in workshops run by Kuona Trust in the late 1990s, Elungat’s life story is inspirational.

Having to drop out of secondary school due to financial difficulties, he begun painting and drawing at an early age thanks to an older brother who shared art materials with his enthusiastic younger brother.
Finding his way to Kuona when it was still at Nairobi National Museum, Elungat thrived among fellow Kenyans, some of whom had graduated from either the Creative Arts Centre or Buru Buru Institute of Fine Art, others like him who had no formal training, only a passion for painting and a desire to develop into masters like Michelangelo or Picasso.
That passion has propelled Elungat into being one of the highest earning visual artists in East Africa. His ethereal beauties, who invariably have an otherworldly aura about them, sell for hundreds of thousands of shillings with some collectors of his work prepared to pay up to one million shillings per piece.
Sharing space in the gallery with a gifted American painter named Olivia Pentergast, there’s an uncanny resemblance between her colour palette and his. Both use a lot of earthen hues which in Elungat’s art seem to resemble streams of radiant sunlight.
In contrast, Pentergast’s shades of light brown and tan seem like colours of dry dust such as she found in Kawangware where all the portraits in her first One Off show were conceived.
Indeed, while their colour schemes are similar and both paint portraits of people, Pentergast’s all come from that so-called informal settlement previously known as a slums. Meanwhile, Elungat’s lovely otherworldly women literally fly across the artist’s canvas as if they had wings.
What’s amazing is that both sets of paintings are stunning, even as she paints on humble pieces of paper while his works are all drawn on large canvases. All his work is duly framed and often under glass while hers is unframed, smaller in size and frayed at the edges.
Yet both artists’ works are valued in the hundreds of thousands and both of their works are selling, thus confirming the point I initially made, that artists like Elungat and many others are now able to prosper and do their art full time.