It is easy for Kenyans to take the burgeoning arts scene for granted until you meet a successful artist who spent her childhood in the country at a time when expression of any nature was severely restricted.
Kenyan dancer and choreographer Wanjiru Kamuyu has just returned home for a break after several years in the U.S and Europe and is struck by the greater space now accorded to the arts.
Having kept in touch with a few Kenyan artists, the dance artist says she gets the sense that there is an active community successfully trying to pave way for artists to earn a living through their skills.
Recently, she held a Master Talk at Pawa254 in Nairobi where she shared her journey as a performance artiste, the trials along the way and her dreams for the future. It was an opportunity to take questions from the audience and there was even time to put in a mini performance to illustrate her style.
Born to a Kenyan father and an African-American mother, Wanjiru has lived in the U.S since the age of 16 but now spends most of her time in Paris, France. She received her grounding as a professional dancer, teacher, choreographer, singer and actress in New York City and has had a career that spans over a decade working on stage, TV and film.
With every visit back to Kenya, she has noticed a greater appreciation of all forms of art, from music to dance and visual art. “How inspiring! There was a time that this would never have been possible.” She adds: “To learn that the growing middle class are the main buyers of visual art is simply amazing.”
There are a couple of random incidents from the last two weeks that stand out in her mind. The musicians selling their CDs at the Kenya National Theatre and an artist at Kuona Trust who proudly says that they able to make a living off their art.
Wanjiru says that as long as Kenyans continue to buy original, art, music and watch as many performances and films then the current simmering energy of artistic hope will eventually burst with creativity. There is a desire among many artists to create work that is abstract and unique to the artistes themselves though she offers a different view.
“The average member of a Kenyan audience finds literal and narrative work more accessible. Thus the artist is constantly trying to find the balance so as not to alienate their audience.”
As a child, Wanjiru walked into her first ballet class at Greengate Nursery School in Nairobi and, it is now clear in her mind that the path was always laid out for her to become a ballerina.
She began creating her first dance works as the choreographer for a youth group at Kenyatta University that would perform a musical every school holiday.
Her professional career took off after she moved to New York and performed with top dance companies like Bandana Women and Urban Bush Women. In 2007, she was an original cast member of the hit musical “The Lion King” and two years later, presented her own work “When paradise shatters at its seams then what?”
In 2010 to 2012, she served as Resident Choreographer, Dance Captain (the person who oversees the dancers in a show) and Swing (a dancer who knows all the parts and assigns replacements for any cast member who may be injured) for the London production of FELA!
The musical, based on the life of the firebrand Nigerian Afro beat musician won a host of awards including three Tony Awards, played to packed audiences on an international tour and enjoyed a return performance on Broadway, the home of U.S theatre.
The passion for dance as a story telling tool inspired Wanjiru to start her own dance company WKcollective in 2009 to fuse contemporary dance with various artistic disciplines across cultures.
For instance, the backdrop to her latest work “Spiral” features images by the influential U.S-based Kenyan artist, Wangechi Mutu.
This current visit back to where her talent was nurtured those many years ago has been extremely productive for Wanjiru who hopes to create an artistic presence and develop opportunities for the young to know that art as a career is an honourable, valuable and valid professional choice.
It seems music and visual art seem have carved out some great support in Kenya, she says, and it will only be a matter of time before theatre and dance follow suit.
Her parting shot: “My love for dance began right here and it would be a dream come true to return regularly to perform and teach. Our children must grow up knowing that one can successfully make a career out of their talents and passion for the arts.