OneOff Contemporary Art Gallery is currently showcasing all 14 of the Kenyan artists who have signed on to be exclusively shown by curator Carol Lees at The Loft in Rosslyn and in any other venue of her choice.
It might seem like a risky decision on their part as there are increasing numbers of venues where local artists can show their work: not just in the galleries and art centres but in any number of restaurants, hotels, pubs and private homes.
In fact, one of the reasons the local art scene is thriving is because artists are inventive and exploratory when it comes to finding new spaces to display—and sell their art.
In the process, they are widening the range of interest in contemporary Kenyan art among locals.
At the same time, there is a lot to be said for an artist casting his or her lot with Carol Lees. The first is that One Off has been up and running since the early 1990s, making its founder, Lees one of the most experienced curators in the country.
Another reason is that the gallery has always treated visual art as a viable business. Lees combines a keen sense of business acumen and administration with a curator’s eye for artistic excellence.
Plus after many years in the business, she not only knows how to market Kenyan visual artists both locally and internationally; she has also built a global clientele of international art lovers who appreciate and also collect local artists’ works.
The other factor that must appeal to local artists enough to have them sign on with Carol Lees is her taking up the role and responsibility on their behalf to market their work.
Part of the marketing of course is in building the brand name, and One Off is widely known for its quality and the originality of the art work that she shows.
So by being associated with One Off, artists are assured of global exposure, which very few if any other curators can claim.
A number of new people are striving to build up the same sort of cultural capital that Lees has, Some call themselves curators; others make promises to the artists that they just cannot keep.
But in any case, it all makes for an interesting mix as it means the Kenyan art scene is being energised, activated and enlivened as never before.
The other factor that is likely to ensure One Off’s continuing success is Lees’ experience working for 10 years with Mary Collis and an outstanding assortment of both local and international artists through RaMoMa Museum/Gallery.
A number of RaMoMa regulars are among the 14.
They include Peter Elungat, Richard Kimathi, Peterson Kamwathi, Ehoodi Kichapi, James Mbuthia, Peter Ngugi, Mandy Bonnell, Beatrice Wanjiku, Timothy Brooke and Anthony Okello. Only Chelenge van Rampelberg and Florence Wangui are new to the One Off group.
All the while that Lees was curating for RaMoMa, she never deregistered One Off, so the 14 whose artwork is currently up at The Loft have the benefit of being part of one of the oldest running galleries in Nairobi.
It’s no match for Paa ya Paa Art Centre which opened in 1965 or Gallery Watatu which opened in 1969—although Watatu sadly seems defunct until we hear otherwise. Even Kitengela Glass Studio opened in 1969. But Banana Hill Art Studio opened in 1994, and Kuona Trust opened in 1995.
Meanwhile, Lees opened One Off in 1993.
All the artists’ works on display at One Off are original and never shown before, so it’s well worth a trip to The Loft just to see the direction Kenyan contemporary art is taking.
Meanwhile, the other factor that’s stimulating increasing interest among up-and-coming Kenyan artists are the art competitions, like the two which just announced winners this past week.
Nairobi National Museum had already informed the public of the four artists who won either cash prizes or trips or both.
First prize went to Elsdart Kigen, Mike Kyalo, second, Rose Savala, third and James Njoroge, fourth.
Meanwhile, the Kenya Arts Diary launched its first Up-and-coming Kenyan artist’s Art Residency this year. Mike Kyalo is the big winner this season as he not only won in the “Experiencing Heritage through Art” competition.
Separately and with different artwork, he also won KAD’s Art Residency together with Kisumu artist Ezra Joab. Both young men will spend a month all expenses paid at Kuona Trust.